Sugar-dusted grapefruit and a jalepeno-topped breakfast sandwich at the Palace Diner.
If Maine is to flourish despite its aging and stagnating population, it will only be thanks to an influx of youngsters from south and north: Brooklynites driven out by the soullessness and the cost of housing, and Quebecoise driven out by whatever is annoying about Canada. Many of them are attracted by Maine’s reputation for food/farm/local yadda yadda. Would it be nice if the newcomers had interesting ideas about something besides food? Sure, but beggars can’t be choosers. Portland, I think we can all agree, has little left to gain from these people. But towns like Biddeford have Frenchie/hipster room to grow.
And Biddeford is on the rise. Once the legendary Ian Svenonius of Chain and the Gang told an interviewer, “All cities really get me going, but particularly Portland, Maine.” Last summer, though, he skipped Portland to play at the Oak and Ax in Biddo, where he spontaneously composed a poetic tribute to the town.
This winter, Kennebunkport’s beachfront homeowners convinced the Maine Supreme Court to let them kick the public off their sand. But in Biddeford the owners are chill, so its gorgeous and underused beaches are good to go.
On your way you can get breakfast or lunch at the reborn Palace Diner, which exemplifies the benefits of this demographic infusion. The cook/owners worked in New York, before helping to open Gather in Yarmouth. Your server is from Montreal. Palace, tucked away on a downtown side street next to a cute little park, is Maine’s oldest diner. The barrel roofed train-car looks incredibly good given it’s nearly a century old. Patrons sit on one of 15 stools at the counter. One suspects this summer they will increasingly carry their coffees and breakfast sandwiches out into the park.
The challenge that faces Palace’s new ownership is how to bring a cultivated culinary sensibility to diner food, without obscuring this cuisine’s unpretentious appeal. They more than pull it off. For example, their coffee is from Portland’s hipster standard, Tandem. But they push it through a traditional Bunn machine into glass pots, and thanks to Tandem’s lighter roasts, the result has pre-coffee-renaissance diner appeal. Sure, a cup costs $2.50, but thanks to the waitress’ frequent refills you can end up drinking an amount that would cost you $15 at a café.
The “deluxe” breakfast sandwich squeezes local eggs and bacon between an oversized Thomas’s English muffin. The egg is baked into a perfect square and topped with a pile of sliced jalapenos. The beauty of the sandwich is the way the peppers add as much vegetal green flavor as they do heat. As they mix with the melting cheddar and some simple white cheese, they give the whole thing a sort of stadium nacho appeal. The bacon is thick and crunchy. In lieu of hashbrowns, they flash-fry pillowly dollops of mashed potatoes. A side of grapefruit wedges had been briefly grilled to caramelize its sprinkling of sugar.
The juicy house burger is a simple classic, animated most notably by thick-sliced rounds of sweet pickle, and a just-sour mayo. The corned beef is served in thick red slices on a darkish rye, fried until crispy. It was topped with a sour and crunchy slaw, that had been mixed up with a touch of sweet Thousand Island. The thinnish (but not thin) house fries strike a great balance between crisp and grease-touched. A sharp house coleslaw douses long strips of crispy cabbage with mustard seed and dill.